Of course, I’d like to think that a film is driven by a profound idea but in this case, the film began because of a very simple passion – music. A love that translated into a journey involving two filmmakers, an Indian and a Pakistani, working across a hostile border over a period of three years. Enabled by technology, these modern day collaborations reveal how political borders are rendered meaningless and art, music and cinema find a way to be seen and heard. Yet, like all good narrative documentaries, there were so many unscripted twists.
It began when I stumbled upon the world of underground music by Pakistani independent music artists whilst surfing the internet. A bunch of school boys complaining about their lunch box is what the music video appeared to be until the saucy lyrics revealed a satire about the politics of religious extremism and the role of the judiciary and military in the country. The song Aalu Anday (Potatoes and Eggs) had got 350,000 hits in a span of few weeks and made the band Beygairat Brigade a viral sensation. Many of the comments and fans seemed to be Indians. The exchanges between youngsters on both sides of the border were jovial and the discussions refreshing from mainstream narratives. I then found a body of satirical work from Ali Azmat to rap artist Ali Gul Pir, the left leaning social commentary of Lal and the socio-politico rock genre of Co-Ven. Despite the censorship laws in the country, these musicians had found their own space to thrive on the internet. They tackled issues from bomb attacks, class structures, politics and censorship. They seemed to be modern day avatars of revolutionary poets Faiz and Jalib who had public readings of poetry to question authoritarian regimes. I began researching each band and discovered that the lead singer of Co-Ven, Hamza Jafri, had a music school that he ran with his wife Nida. This seemed like a perfect stage where the film could unfold. The film at that time was titled – The Guitar School.
I wanted to bring on a Pakistani co-director. I had collaborated with Maheen Zia, who lives in Karachi, Pakistan on a film ten years ago. I was shooting a film for the National Geographic Channel on camel racing in the Middle East. It was a time when the royal sport was undergoing a radical change – a robotic substitute was being developed to replace child jockeys. I discovered that many of the child jockeys had been kidnapped from Pakistan. I had scenes of them leaving Abu Dhabi and Qatar but I wanted to capture their repatriation to a homeland they had never known. Visas to Pakistan from India looked complicated and near impossible. My assistant director, Aditya, found Maheen on an internet database in 2005 and put me on a call with her. I briefed her on the phone and via email. She shot material that really added an emotional chord to the film, Robot Jockey, that otherwise was a technology thriller. Once again I reconnected with her to embark on a new film that would centre around Hamza and Nida’s music school.
I cut a trailer from archival footage and pitched The Guitar School at Docedge, an Asian platform for creative documentary projects in development. I also had a seed grant from the IDFA-Bertha Fund based in Amsterdam to begin a trailer shoot but no budgets to work out the initial travel for me to be in Pakistan. Thus began daily WhatsApp conversations and weekly Skype conversations (Skypes) with Maheen, usually with a cat curled up near the computer or a dog barking for attention. Maheen I discovered, was a leading activist in Pakistan who rescued and rehabilitated animals. They were a big part of her home and her life. In my home, my son peeped into our Skypes to ask me a question , say hi to Maheen or her puppy Taichi. This is how we became friends during the process of filmmaking. We decided that Maheen would shoot and I would edit.
Preliminary shoots were with some of the bands and in the music school but Maheen was questioning the narrative path the film was taking and the scope for dramatic events to unfold. This is when she walked into a class where there was a batch of students who had been enrolled from Lyari. These children, mostly young girls, were having their very first brush with formal music education. She was struck by the joy and excitement in the class. These children were from Lyari, an area in Karachi always in the news for gang violence, curfews and blackouts. This picture of them happily singing in a music class made her feel there was a narrative thread that could throw up an interesting contrast of music and resistance. She began filming an observational style narrative with this batch of children from Lyari and shared the clips via the file sharing software, Dropbox. I cut a new trailer and our project was selected for the IDFA summer school in Amsterdam. This would be the first time Maheen and I would meet in person, one year into the project.
Maheen had a few hitches in getting her visa in time and then missed a connecting flight. The first day at the summer workshop had passed with me restlessly checking my phone for updates but barely pitching the project. The organizers had provided our team with the biggest room with a small separating screen unlike all the other shared accommodation. Good humored jokes were cracked that this was a provision to ensure that our precarious Indo-Pak co-production stayed afloat in case we discovered we could not get on in person. With every delay I genuinely began to worry whether Maheen would really show up.
She did arrive well into the second day and those sunny workshop days were crucial for both of us to go through more material she was carrying with her. We got a very experienced Finnish commissioning editor, Iikka Vehkalahti, as our friend and adviser on the film. He was instrumental in us taking a very tough decision to focus our film on the journey of the girls from Lyari. We renamed the project Lyari Notes.
This decision changed the tone of the film from an aggressive stance on censorship to a more nuanced coming of age film. The timeline of the film automatically extended to two more years to allow the narrative to unfold naturally. We realized that it would be very tricky to shoot openly in Lyari and that we had a big responsibility of adopting a cautious approach as we were shooting with minors. This is when I had to take a heart-breaking decision that I would not travel for the shoots even if we raised production support. Being an Indian might draw unwanted attention to the filming process and our young subjects.
By the end of the summer school, we had won another development grant from CBA Worldview, it was also my job to be the primary producer and keep applying for more project funds. This allowed Maheen to continue filming. There were days when she set out to shoot and got calls telling her to turn around the car as a curfew had been imposed. There is one particular scene where there was a shoot-out just as the crew arrived. I could witness all of this through the conversations and the rushes. Maheen completely trusted the families in Lyari and the Kiran school officials who ensured crew safety.
Reaching rushes to me in Mumbai, India was another complicated sub-plot. Sending hard drives between India and Pakistan by courier is illegal. We had many anguished Skypes and some of these recordings became part of a trailer for a crowd funding campaign to raise production funds for our film. We were amazed by the response to our call for help. Support came pouring in from all over the world, especially from India. It was clear that the mission of the filmmakers to tell this story despite the odds had struck a chord.
It was a few weeks to wrap up the crowd fund when a tragedy struck in Peshawar. Malala Yousufzai had just made her moving Nobel prize acceptance speech about empowering children through education. A few weeks later militants gunned down 132 children in an army school in Peshawar. Maheen filmed the candle lit vigils and outpouring of grief in Karachi. The children in Lyari discussed religion and terrorism and what it meant to be a Muslim in today’s world. This is the most honest heart-breaking introspection in our film.
The crowd funding closed with more than 100 supporters and us having exceeded the target by 30%. Maheen and I realized we had this support because we were working on an important film that was the story of the silent majority who are as much victims of violence and terrorism in Pakistan. Filming wrapped up with some very ambitious drone shots over Lyari and Karachi, shots we never dared to attempt at the beginning of our filming for fear of drawing too much attention to our shoot and of course the expense involved.
We landed a co-production agreement with Al Jazeera after they saw a rough cut of our film as well as a post-production grant from Alter Cine. The most intensive and immersive process of editing over 100 hours of material into a feature length film began in earnest. We had started off with a simple premise but were now looking at a very complex layered narrative. There was archival material and news footage that were political milestones, music videos that were social commentary and there was the main narrative of the girls as they attended the music school despite cycles of violence. Each of these scenes had their own energy and rhythm. The four girls of Lyari Notes emerged from our rushes, choosing themselves to be the protagonists of the film. Mehroz, Aqsa, Sherbano and Javeria were neighbors and best friends, each with distinct personalities. They stayed committed to the music course despite the ups and downs providing a narrative arc. I worked with very experienced editors, Sankalp and Moneesha, and the Skypes with Maheen continued to debate our editorial choices.
This co-production has been a logistical and technological nightmare because of political hostilities between India and Pakistan. Let me also confess it has been a big creative challenge. It is difficult for two creative and opinionated people to collaborate and subsume their own positions. It is with great pride and satisfaction that both Maheen and I can say we are equally proud of the film and we were involved in shaping the process at every stage. I had to let go of my preconceived notions during the shooting process and Maheen had to trust me with editorial freedom.
The film premiered at the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam, where it was nominated for the Alliance of Women Journalists in Film – EDA Award. It has then gone on to open film festivals in Austin, Rome, Philadelphia and the Artists Cinema at the Kochi Biennale. It was also nominated for the youth jury award at Sheffield and won the ARY Award, Boddhisattva Award as well as the Silver Award at the Indian Documentary Producers Association for feature length documentary.
The biggest reward, however, has been that almost every audience we have shown Lyari Notes to has said that it was a very refreshing take on Pakistan, one that offers hope and resistance, a striking contrast to the constant focus on guns and violence. The audiences in both India and Pakistan have embraced the film in a way that vindicates our stand that music can build bridges. Lyari Notes had it’s television premiere on Al Jazeera to commemorate the first anniversary of the Peshawar attack.